Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On the closing of the Artists' Quarter, and what it means

This picture hangs in the hall outside the AQ.
That's Kenny Horst on the left, Davis Wilson on the right.
Lately I’ve been obsessed, like many, with the Minnesota Orchestra: the lockout of the musicians, now entering its second year; the inability of management and musicians to solve what seem to be intractable problems, even with help from former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who is serving as mediator; the unprecedented resignation mid-contract of music director Osmo Vänskä, and last weekend’s farewell concerts at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, when Vänskä led the musicians for what could be the final time.

This whole thing is bad for classical music nationally and internationally. It’s bad for music in general. It’s very, very bad for music in the Twin Cities.

We did not need more bad music news, but we got some Monday. And while this story is not likely to be reported in the New York Times or followed by many blogs, as the Minnesota Orchestra story has been, it has as much potential to blow a hole in our cultural fabric as the continuing lockout of the orchestra’s musicians and the darkness of the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.

Late Monday, Minneapolis Star Tribune music writer Chris Riemenschneider posted an article with this headline on the Strib’s website: “Blue note from St. Paul: Artists’ Quarter to close.”

I think I might have shouted something to my husband. I can’t remember.

AQ owner Kenny Horst, who has long been struggling to keep the St. Paul basement jazz club afloat, has decided he just can’t do it anymore. His rent has doubled. Audiences have dwindled. And love – of Horst, a drummer, for jazz; of the musicians for Horst, because he understands them and respects them; of the fans who go to St. Paul, find parking (it’s not easy), make their way down the stairs, and pay their cover to Davis Wilson at the door – isn’t enough to hold the doors open.

So, what does this mean? I confess to spending the first hour or two after reading the news feeling sorry for myself. Where else would I go, knowing that when I got there I would be certain to hear live jazz? Because there is no other room in the Twin Cities that is devoted solely to jazz.

Side note: Riemenschneider called the AQ “a mainstay for jazz purists,” which isn’t quite right. “Jazz purists” – at least the way it’s defined these days – are those who think the only “real” jazz is traditional and/or straight-ahead. The AQ was strong on straight-ahead jazz, but it also made room for other types, most recently the sounds of Kneebody. 

Speaking with MPR’s David Cazares, trumpeter/composer/bandleader Adam Meckler (who recently scored the plum spot of a regular once-a-month gig at the AQ with his big band) was more accurate when he called the AQ “one of the last pure jazz clubs left in the Midwest.” That’s what I mean by a room devoted solely to jazz. Except for Sundays, when the AQ was most often “available for private event” (if only there had been more of those), and Mondays, which were given over to poetry slams and open poetry with live jazz, you knew that when you went to the AQ, you would hear jazz. You would always hear jazz.

There are other rooms in the Twin Cities that occasionally feature jazz, and we bless them for that. Places like the Black Dog, Studio Z, Homewood Studio, the Cedar Cultural Center, Madam of the Arts, Icehouse, Café Maude (on Penn), Hell's Kitchen, the School II, the Aster, Barbette, the Red Stag, Fireside Pizza, the St. Paul Hotel, and the Walker. Special mention must be made of the Dakota. Once devoted solely to jazz, now featuring a broad range of music, it still brings in the big names (most recently Ravi Coltrane, Dave Holland, and Gary Burton), which Horst could never afford. Special mention must also be made of Jazz Central, a musician-owned combination performance space/listening room/recording studio/classroom. You can find jazz there often, if not every night. But it's not a jazz club.

To repeat: besides the AQ, there is no other room in the Twin Cities that is devoted solely to jazz.

As of January 1, 2014, when (dare we say if?) the AQ closes, there will be no room in the Twin Cities where we can always hear jazz. Beyond feeling sorry for myself, what does this mean to the jazz musicians who play the AQ often or regularly, like Eric Kamau Gravatt (McCoy Tyner’s former drummer), Framework, Pete Whitman’s X-Tet, Dave Karr, Phil Hey, recent Manhattan School of Music grad Miguel Hurtado, and so many more? Where will groups like Atlantis Quartet have their next CD release? Where will the kids fresh from Berklee or the Brubeck Institute strut their stuff? 

Where else in the Twin Cities will Dave Hagedorn, who drives up from Northfield, where he teaches at St. Olaf, get to play his vibes with other jazz musicians? What about the bands with weekly gigs there – the Cory Wong Quartet and Steve Kenny? Where in the Twin Cities will pianist Bill Carrothers play? Where will the Dave King Trucking Company have a whole weekend pretty much whenever they want it? Chris Lomheim, Phil Aaron, Locally Damaging Winds (two trombones!), Red Planet – where will they play? 

Where will chanteuse Carol Martin, Horst’s mother-in-law, sing “Going Back to Joe’s” and “Canadian Sunset”? Will we ever hear Eric Alexander in the Twin Cities again? And Mose Allison? Ari Hoenig? Greg Skaff? Pat Mallinger? And what about pianist Jon Weber, who flies in every year for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, now held in St. Paul? Where will he be able to hold forth for three nights of genius and banter if not at the AQ? And speaking of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the AQ has been its anchor. How will the AQ’s closing affect the jazz festival?

When (if) the AQ closes, there will not be another pure, real, honest, actual, serious, devoted-to-the-music jazz club in the Twin Cities, its metro area, or (unless I'm mistaken) the whole state of Minnesota. There might not be another jazz club between here and Chicago. And that will be a sad day for music. How can we be training young jazz musicians locally at places like McNally Smith and MacPhail and the U of M and Hamline and Macalester and not have a jazz club?

There’s time between now and December 31 to do something about this. People are already saying that St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman – who praised Horst on his birthday last January for helping to revitalize the city’s cultural scene – should step in. McNally Smith College of Music, many of your faculty have played on the AQ’s stage. What do you have to say? What can you do? Are there jazz musicians out there who can take over a club? Wealthy AQ regulars? Anyone? Is there a space in Lowertown that can give Kenny Horst a "really good deal" so he can move the AQ there? 

A city without a real jazz club is like a city without an orchestra. It's a crying shame.


More press on the AQ news:

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